The Brilliance of Damon Baehrel

img_0195Make no mistake – chef/owner Damon Baehrel of his eponymous restaurant is an accomplished cook. His food is good, very good, but neither he nor his restaurant are brilliant because his food is revelatory or life changing. Delicious? Mostly, yes. Sublime? Here and there. In and of itself, from a purely culinary taste experience, worth the tariff? I can’t honestly say yes. From this perspective alone, not even close. A unique, somewhat bizarre, but ultimately enjoyable dining experience? I’m glad I went. The real brilliance of the chef and the restaurant comes in the form of how he has constructed the total package of the visit. This is dinner as theater with the show starting well before the arrival of the diners.

Exclusivity has value, both to the entity that is exclusive and to those who want what it has to offer. When one has the opportunity to take advantage of something exclusive and highly desired, it can feel like winning the lottery. By virtue of the restaurant’s size, location, limited availability, story and reputation, Damon Baehrel is very, very exclusive and largely, by virtue of its exclusivity, story and reputation, it is also highly desired. In this case, it’s location makes it all the more mysterious. The response that I’ve had on facebook, Twitter and Instagram about my merely dining there is evidence that this restaurant has created a niche of interest, desirability and exclusivity for itself. Recent attention by the mainstream media, even though not entirely complimentary, has only seemed to fuel that interest and curiosity. My own curiosity and eventual access to the restaurant predated the recent article in The New Yorker, though the article did serve to heighten my interest even further.

The basic premise of what makes the food and drink at Damon Baehrel so special is his use of what he calls “Native Harvest” cuisine, which, according to Baehrel, is a unique way of utilizing ingredients both grown wildly as well as cultivated on his property, augmented only by meat, poultry and seafood purchased elsewhere. Specifically, Chef Baehrel says that he uses a wide variety of seasonal products from his land when they attain specific properties desired by him at certain times of the year. He then says, that he uses specific parts of plants like cattails, goldenrods, mushrooms, lichens, mosses, acorns, pine needles, tree bark, etc. to create a variety of flours, oils and other components of his cuisine to replace more conventional techniques of thickening, curing, fermenting and aging his food as well as for use as up front and center components of specific dishes. It is the harvesting and creation of these various components as well as the making of his own salumi and cheeses that, he says,  uses the bulk of his time.

With the score of a date, in this case, a special opening for four people, on a day that the restaurant would otherwise have been closed, came anticipation and preparation. I, for example, made special arrangements to take time off for work (2 days) to allow me to take advantage of this unusual opportunity that, while not far from where I live in an absolute sense, is too far to comfortably visit without making those arrangements. As a destination restaurant, I also had to make arrangements for a place to stay. Fortunately, for me, I managed to find a superb and superbly valued AirBnB stay a mere 30 minutes away, just outside of Hudson, NY.

img_0199The advance anticipation culminated with pulling up the gate of the property upon which the restaurant is located. At the designated time, precisely at 4PM, the gate opened to allow ingress into the well maintained and beautiful compound. Though the four of us arrived by three different means, we all arrived within a couple of minutes of each other. The setting, a large, immaculate house, overlooking pristine gardens, outbuildings and woods, impressed. We collected ourselves and the bottles of wine that we brought, and took a few photos of the exterior path leading to the entrance to the basement location of the restaurant.

img_0203We were greeted ebulliently at the door by the self-effacing Damon Baehrel himself. He would be, other than ourselves, the only other person who we would see until after we left the estate six and a half hours later.

Chef Baehrel, noticing the camera and phones, made a point of emphasizing, very politely, that photographs of his food and product were forbidden, even if just for personal use. Since I use my photos as a basis for remembering details about a meal, I was at a loss. Fortunately, for me, though, the renowned diner and critic, Andy Hayler, preceded us to Damon Baehrel. He posted a detailed account of his meal from November, 2015 including photos (not sure if they were allowed or not). The meal was almost, if not exactly, the same as we had. If it was different in any way, I could not say based upon his photos and commentary.

Otherwise warmly greeted, we were ushered into the small, but comfortable basement dining room. Warm wood surfaces were everywhere, while warm lighting offered illumination upon the generally rustic, but well-appointed space. There was a single, wooden table in the middle of the room, set for four people. Other bare wooden tables were used to support an army of wine glasses, a wine stand, and in the far end of the room, a large wooden table displayed an array of the plant based ingredients that comprise the basis for Baehrel’s “Native Harvest” cuisine.  Some of these plant resources were further displayed on each of our plates in the form of a floral still life. These had been presented exclusively for visual consumption and were whisked away just before at least one of us attempted to eat some of it.

One of our group was expected to bring some Champagne, but didn’t, which elicited some good natured razzing amongst ourselves. The lack of Champagne, however, was solved by Chef Baehrel with a gift of a limited release 1997 Soter Blanc de Blanc Oregon sparkling wine, made in the same year that Soter Vineyards opened, and released in 2007. The label of the bottle was interesting and unfamiliar even to my very wine savvy dinnermates. It was also a different label to what I was able to find online for the wine on Cellartracker.com. Regardless, it was a lovely wine and a well placed and appreciated gift that (mostly) silenced the unfortunate razzing.

The food started coming out in small bites, each with a detailed explanation from the chef/waiter, of the ingredients and how they were transformed from their native states into his cuisine. Several of the bites were served on thin crisps, each slightly different but not largely so. Using hand pressed nut oils and flours made from nuts, trees and other plants not typical of most pantries, I was surprised to find, that while everything was quite tasty and prepared with skill, there was very little, if anything, that tasted unusual or unfamiliar.The only “conventional” items on the plates were the outside sourced meat, fish and poultry proteins, yet, nothing tasted truly unfamiliar. Chef Baehrel progressed through his early dishes emphasizing a variety of native plant species used in very novel ways, such as “exotic” charcuterie sliced extremely thinly (but which lacked marked differences in taste or texture), tasty, (but mildly flavored) cheeses made in house using plant rennet, and then into the series of dishes featuring poultry, seafood and ultimately red meat, before culminating in dessert. I was surprised that these unusual ingredients didn’t taste more, well, unusual. While many were used in supporting roles, some dishes featured the ingredients. One palate cleanser, an ice made with stevia (he says that he grows the plant on his property and makes the sweetener from it himself) and wild sweet clover flowers, tasted to me just like the flavor of concord grape. A taste of a clover leaf on the same plate failed to provide that same flavor.

img_0216The evening was long, but moved quickly. We enjoyed each other’s company and the quality of the cooking was excellent, especially with the preparation of the seafood and various meat dishes. Though the meal consisted of approximately 25 “courses”, the quantities were limited and the overall amount of food, while sufficient, did not overwhelm. The champagne issue notwithstanding, between us, we had brought a number of bottles of wine, including a marvelous 1964 Domaine Romanée-Conti Grands Echezaux generously contributed by one of my fellow diners, for which we were charged a reasonable corkage and Mr. Baehrel supplemented those with a few additional bottles beside the aforementioned Soter, a Meursault and at the end a bottle of 1998 Chateau D’Yquem.

img_0219After the meal, he came out to chat with us, to pose for group photos and then he offered to show his his store room, though not his kitchen nor his charcuterie and cheese production spaces. The store room, located in an out building, contained a variety of large jars containing flours, liquids and other substances, as well as implements designed to manually press oils. Each jar was labeled. The odd thing, though, was how little he actually had in stock, especially heading into the fall.

The entire evening was fascinating in the way a good novel or theatrical experience is fascinating. There has been much speculation as to the veracity of his claims when it comes to how he runs his restaurant, sources his ingredients and creates his food. I went with an open mind, aware of some of the controversies surrounding him, but wanting to believe the specialness of his story. I left with ever increasing doubts as to that story’s veracity, but not because his food wasn’t delicious or beautifully and thoughtfully presented. My doubts started with the lack of unique flavors in any of his dishes. As one of my dining companions reasoned, that is because he is simply substituting unusual ingredients for conventional ones, choosing them to highlight their sweet and savory aspects, while not utilizing the Nordic traits of favoring sour and bitter elements in their foraged ingredients. Baehrel’s explanations appear to support that approach, but giving him the benefit of the doubt of that explanation, I must then ask, why make those substitutions in the first place? If they are not used to offer their own distinct flavor and textural profiles, why bother? The lack of those distinctive elements was my greatest disappointment. I still cannot really say, whether or not he actually does what he claims to do in any element of his restaurant, but either way, the man and the restaurant really are brilliant, albeit ultimately unsatisfying to me in the way that a well constructed novel with a disappointing ending can be unsatisfying. There is no doubt in my mind that he is an accomplished cook who creates a fine meal, that were it a third of the price in that same location, would represent a fine value and a worthwhile experience simply as a fine dinner. Our fun was initially enhanced by the anticipation and the mystery, but ultimately, not because of his “Native Harvest” devices. Those devices, while not satisfying to me as culinary techniques that actually enhance or create a novel cuisine, are still technically cool and brilliant, if he actually did develop them and does utilize them.

I no longer personally believe the veracity of most of the claims behind the restaurant, but that in no way dissipates my sense of his overall brilliance. Even if the entire basis of his story should turn out to be a hoax or only partially true, his ability to construct such an elaborate and effective fiction would be nothing short of genius.

One might ask for potential motive. The results he has achieved in terms of notoriety and a comfortable living speak for themselves. For the dinner he prepared for the four of us, I would estimate that he cleared anywhere from $1500-1900 after expenses. If he actually didn’t have a routinely scheduled restaurant with up to 30 covers/night over the weekends (this is what is supposed to be booked 10 years out and no longer taking reservations), but only did dinners like this 2-4 times/week, he would potentially clear $3000-$7600/week, depending upon how much he actually wanted to work. If he didn’t actually do all of the Native Harvest work that he claims to do, he would also have plenty of free time to do other things, something he likely would never have been able to do had this restaurant, located where it is, remained more conventional. This is all supposition and opinion, which I can neither prove nor disprove. I have come to regard it as culinary theater. We all had a fun evening and tasty food, however ultimately overpriced. It would have been very satisfying if I had encountered more evidence of unique culinary genius on my palate, but instead, the bulk of the genius lay in the overall setting.

The most important element is the quality of the cuisine. He cooks well enough to be credible as a talented cook, but not so well that the food is incredible and reflective of a truly novel and worthwhile approach. He claims to have a book coming soon on his “Native Harvest” techniques and dishes. Hopefully, that will go a long way towards either exonerating the veracity of Baehrel and his methods from his detractors and doubters or ultimately providing more fuel to their fire. Regardless of that veracity or lack thereof, the cuisine was quite good, but in and of itself not truly unique or special enough to warrant a visit on its account. If theater and drama is what is desired, then make a special reservation!


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